The five minute CIO: Alex French

10 Jan 2014

Alex French, operations director at Bitbuzz

The operations director at fast-expanding Wi-Fi network operator Bitbuzz, Alex French, talks about managing growth, trusting the technical team and managing himself out of a job.

You’ve been at Bitbuzz for more than a decade: what’s been the biggest change for you over that time?

The biggest change we’ve seen is the movement of Wi-Fi from being this crazy new Star Trek technology that when you suggested it, people looked at you like you were crazy – “why would anyone want to use wireless when they can use a phone line to connect to the internet?” Now it’s gone to where people expect it as a utility. They expect it everywhere and they expect it to work well.

We went from being very much an entrepreneurial company, focused on rolling out wherever we could, to focusing on quality and how we can improve the customer experience. It is a different mindset. You’re focused on putting in something you can upgrade, maintain, service and support 24 hours a day.

This has really been driven by the importance of Wi-Fi in business hotels – the expectation is there, when somebody checks into a hotel at midnight or 2am, and if they have a problem, they expect to have help. We have a 24/7 helpdesk and we monitor the network around the clock.

You were in the ISP business as far back as the Club Internet days; is it a big change for you?

What we do now in Bitbuzz in Wi-Fi is not a million miles away from what I was doing as an ISP back in the day. It’s all about pushing traffic for people: they want to be connected to the internet and wanted to use the fastest connection available. Ultimately, you’re taking traffic from one place and pushing it to another – it’s as simple and as complicated as that.

More and more, I’ve stepped back from the front line and I’m looking more towards what we need to do to grow the business. This year, we intend to more than double the hotels that we have on our network and we have to put in place the systems, the people – all of the different backend things to make sure we can keep up with that.

Every once in a while I’ll put on the Snickers trousers and go out on site but the team is better at doing that job than I ever was. It’s a cliché, but the challenge for someone who starts a company is always to try and manage yourself out of a job. You need to teach people the stuff you did, and teach them to do it better. For the founders and early employees at Bitbuzz, we were doing seven jobs at once and we’re now only doing two or three.

Can you give us some idea of your day-to-day responsibilities at Bitbuzz?

I oversee a team of four field engineers, both here and in UK, and they’re responsible for the day-to-day maintenance and build of the network – everything from surveying new premises, installing a Wi-Fi network and going back for maintenance if needed.

We also have a development team of two people here in Dublin, and they look after all the new features that we put in. We’re very happy with the changes we made recently to the Hotel Freetime product, where it now takes less time for customers to log in. We also have apps for smartphone users – they can register and get online through the app. We also have our NOC in Dublin which does all of our second-level support. In a small company, you don’t necessarily have the luxury of loads of departments and layers. Everybody pitches in.

A lot of IT people tend to move company after a while, to gain experience in different areas – how have you been able to scratch that itch while staying in one place?

I think I’ve been very lucky in the sense that the growth of Bitbuzz has allowed me to be involved in all aspects of different technology without having to move. We’ve gone from being a three-man team with a small IT infrastructure, to being a rather more developed team with our own routing and switching infrastructure, our own systems and databases and servers that process and keep track of 23,000 logins per day by our customers at the peak – that’s across Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK. In a way, working in a small company, you get a chance to play with a lot more different things than if you’re working within a particular area in a larger company.

How big is the technical team you have, and do you keep all of your expertise in-house or do you outsource where appropriate?

I don’t think we could be where we are today without judicious use of outsourcing. From early on, we used a third-party data centre, we didn’t try to build our own. We use a third-party call centre and we use third-party accountancy. The thing with outsourcing is, you get out what you put in, if you stay on top of the process – at same time, you can’t be outsourcing everything or you’re not adding a lot of value.

How do you stay on top of the process?

For example, in terms of outsourcing our helpdesk – which is a very important role – we would monitor in-house the performance of the helpdesk, we would review calls and tickets that come in, and we have regular meetings and training with our outsourcing partner … You need to constantly be reviewing your partner because ultimately, these are the people who are talking to your customers.
If you don’t do that, you lose control over that part of business, and you lose sight of the experiences that customers are having and that can hurt you more than help you.

What’s your opinion of some of an IT trend like cloud and what relevance does it have to your own work?

For any small company when you’re trying to grow and add staff, one of the key things is how you give them access to the systems they need. We don’t want to have to run internal IT systems and internal IT staff because ultimately they’re not helping our customers. With a lot of the cloud solutions, we can have access to the same email systems as some of the world’s top companies, without having the same overhead.

We use Google Apps, Dropbox, and these allow us to have document sharing and email with a fraction of the headache of even five or six years ago where if you wanted email, you also had to manage antivirus and anti-spam – you needed someone in-house to manage all that. Similarly for storage and backup, we use a lot of cloud providers and the fact Amazon has a data centre in Ireland is good because it means the facility is close to us from a network point of view. It gives us a leg up as a small company.

If you show any CIO, and it takes 10 people to do this, versus one person, that’s always an argument in favour of the cloud. If I’m going to hire a software engineer, I’d rather have them work on customer-facing systems rather than making sure our email gets through.

Especially as we started growing internationally, all of those [factors] become more important, because we have a distributed team and they all need access to systems … ultimately, it’s about making sure nothing is stopping them from signing up customers quickly and easily.

As you’ve moved into a business-focused role, have you had to ‘let go’ of the technology piece a little bit, and if so, how have you found this transition?

It’s about having a really good team, and part of that is about retaining good people. Our engineering team and all our technical team have all been with us a long time and we’re focused on trying to keep everyone in the company. When you have a team that you’ve worked with for a long time, you trust them and they don’t need me looking over their shoulder.

To what extent did that change happen organically, and to what extent did you make it happen such as by choosing to focus on particular areas?

It’s when you start to see the big changes in your business and you see the big goals. For us, until a couple of years ago, we were focused on breaking the €1m annual revenue mark. You have to re-examine the business, and see how it scales, and you realise: how can it do that without me taking the same workload?

In 2013, we reached the €2m revenue mark and our next target is €5m; each one of these goals makes you focus on bottlenecks in the business, and you have to plan and set goals and what resources we need, and what’s my role in it.

A lot is said about whether technically minded people can make the switch to business strategy: did you have to re-educate yourself to do this?

I didn’t formally retrain in terms of an MBA or anything like that. I see everything as systems: a computer system is one kind of system but equally, an organisation or a business process – whether it’s installing a Wi-Fi hotspot or a HR system – is another. So, what are the processes, the inputs, the cogs and the pieces to make this work? For me, it’s something I’ve always been interested in. I wouldn’t say anything bad about an MBA, but I’m someone who learns by doing.

Last year, registered Bitbuzz users grew by 81pc to 2.08m, and you now have 480 hotspots – a 12pc increase on 2012. What challenges does that present from an IT and business point of view?

I think one of the biggest issues is always how you scale. Are you looking to scale for your six-month needs, your five-year or 10-year needs – and you don’t always have access to the funding to do that. It’s a difficult balance to strike for a small company.

We’ve seen a 67pc increase in logins over 2013. And, IT systems tend to become more complex: not in a linear way but exponentially and when you’re dealing with multiple countries and teams that are geographically dispersed. That becomes very complex from a technology and logistics perspective – to ensure you have the right skills, people and equipment and to ensure they’re close to your customers.

So it’s how we set ourselves up to scale for next three years. But to come back to your earlier question, it’s also how you stop being bored in the same job. Do we outsource more, do we move more systems to the cloud – these are the sorts of questions we’re dealing with.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic